My goodness, but Zamyatin is an unexpected writer. I certainly was taken by surprise when I first read ‘We.’ In fact, I was also surprised on re-reading when I found it surpassed my happy memory (I wrote about it here). I was taken aback once again when I realised that, not only had he lived in Britain before the 1917 revolution, but he also wrote two stories satirising the English way of life. Then I read the book; I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.
I don’t think I’ve read any books from this period with such distain for their characters and setting. Zamyatin appears to have hated everything about the English middle-classes who make up his cast. Fortunately for readers, this hatred is expressed through Rould Dahlesque characterisation. ‘Islanders,’ for example, begins with a portrait of the Reverend Dewley, ‘the pride of Jesmond.’ He’s the author of the ‘Precepts of Compulsory Salvation’ and is evangelical about his invented system for perfect living. Dewley’s home is strewn with timetables ‘A timetable for the consumption of food; a timetable for days of penance (two a week); a timetable for the use of fresh air; a timetable for charitable activities and finally, among the others, one timetable, out of a regard for decency untitled, which particlarly concerned Mrs Dewley and on which every third Saturday was marked.‘ The book isn’t actually about Mr and Mrs Dewley specifically, nor about their system. It’s about, well I’m not entirely sure. A man is run over outside their house and disrupts the timetables for a bit by having to be looked after. He’s a member of the faded aristocracy who gets a job with one of the reverend’s parishioners and falls for a much divorced dancer. There’s a Greek chorus of neighbours who appear at moments and equally unexpected appearances of the suffering mother, Lady Campbell, distinguished by her lips ‘they were pale pink, very thin and unusually long; they wriggled like worms, moving their tails up and down.‘
‘Islanders’ and ‘The Fisher of Men’ don’t read like full stories, they seem more like note book jottings of grotesque characters and situations. It is far from what I expected after the clinical precision of ‘We,’ but a perfect demonstration of Zamyatin’s wide ranging talents as a writer. Mixing disgusted observation with an almost symbolist narrative, this book will show you 1917 England as you’ve never read it before. Now I just need to see if there are any more Zamyatin books out there in translation to surprise me yet again.